11 Amazing Facts about Fungi You May Not Know

Facts about Fungi

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Did you know that fungi are responsible for almost all food production? While these species might not have the best rep, since many are associated with damp, mold, and other dingy things, they’re actually doing us a huge favor.

If that wasn’t enough, fungi are useful in so many other respects, such as medical science, manufacturing, and much more. Without them, the world would be a very different place. If you want to get to know fungi a little better, this guide that contains some amazing facts will help you get better acquainted!

1. Psilocybin Could Help Treat Depression & PTSD

Mycelium block of psilocybin mushrooms
Mycelium block of psilocybin psychedelic mushrooms

As time has gone on and as medicine has become more advanced, a focus on mental health has come to the forefront. Rightly so as it now appears that around 280 million people worldwide could be suffering from depression at any one time.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a natural treatment for this and other mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Well, there may be, and it comes in the form of a type of fungi known as psilocybin.

study has shown that this psychedelic fungi could improve and remove symptoms of depression in as little as four weeks! This treatment was used alongside psychotherapy so it’s unclear as to how the treatment would work on its own but in any case, this could be a game-changer for those with diminished mental health.

However, what may concern a lot of people when they learn about this is that psilocybin is actually a compound of the drug magic mushrooms. Of course, studies were completed under strict conditions and there’s currently no suggestion that this drug will replace commonly used SSRIs in the treatment of such mental health conditions just yet, but it shows that fungi are indeed an incredibly powerful and effective organism.

2. Many Food Products Wouldn’t Exist Without Fungi

Penicillium glaucum used in blue cheese
Penicillium glaucum is a type of mold that is used in the production of a number of blue cheeses

When you think about fungi, you might think only about mushrooms. Of course, these are part of this living kingdom but the mushroom is merely the fruit of certain types of fungi. There are others that are microscopic and there are thought to be up to 1.5 million species of these alone that are beneficial to human wellbeing.

What’s interesting is that many types of fungi are responsible for the production of some of your favorite foods. Take certain types of cheese, for example. If you’re a fan of blue cheese then you’ve got fungi to thank as a type known as Penicillium glaucum is what creates the mold that gives the cheese its blue veins.

Even more interestingly, as this type of mold helps to ripen cheese, it adds to the flavor. This can happen both from the inside or from the outside and may even affect the texture. Think about the crust that forms on things like brie; that’s all because of fungi!

Another type of penicillium mold known as Penicillium nalgiovense is often used in the production of cured meats, such as salami. And even if you’re not a meat eater, that Quorn burger would never have been on your plate without a type of fungus called fusarium.

Yeast is another common type of fungi, and without this, the world would not have products like bread, wine, or beer. Now how many of us could live without those things?

If you’re into Asian cuisine then it’s nothing without a splash of soy sauce but again, without fungi, this popular condiment would never be a thing. Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans but before it can claim to be soy sauce, there’s a key ingredient; you guessed it…fungi. In this case, it’s a type known as Aspergillus oryzae.

3. Mycelium Is an Eco-Friendly Alternative to Plastics

It’s no secret that doing your bit for the planet is one of the most important things you can do. We’ve all become vastly aware of how not being eco-friendly could damage our world. Plastic is hailed as one of the worst things for Earth, especially with so many single-use products out there. So what can we do?

Well, the answer may lie with fungi since the mycelium structures could be an eco-friendly alternative to single-use plastics. When these fungi-based products are finished with, they’re biodegradable, so they’ll simply go back into the earth, and the cycle begins again.

So, how does it work? Amazingly, mycelium-based packaging can be grown in just one week and so with this rapid production and eco-friendliness, it’s no wonder that massive companies like IKEA are committed to only using it from now on.

If that wasn’t enough, this material can also be used in insulation through the growth and use of innovative insulation panels. Not only is this a very environmentally friendly way of insulating homes, but it’s also been shown to produce new jobs, according to one report by the BBC.

4. Mushroom Leather Can Be Used to Produce Clothing

Leather made from mushrooms
Mushroom leather is a vegan-friendly alternative to leather made from cattle hides

We live in a world where fashion is becoming more and more disposable. That’s not good in any case, but where animal products are used, it’s even worse. There’s really no need to use real leather, however, when there is a fungi alternative in the form of mushroom leather.

What’s great about this is that it is completely renewable and if you have your doubts about it’s quality and effectiveness, you only need to consider that huge companies like Lululemon and Adidas have already started using it. Bolt Threads produces this incredible material that rivals the softness and suppleness of real leather, without any harm to the planet.

Vegan-friendly brand Stella McCartney is leading the fashion industry in many ways and has never used real animal products. It comes as no surprise, then, that this highly respected designer is one of the first to launch an entire mylo unleather range. And you know, looking at the products, you’d never tell the difference!

5. There are Millions of Species of Fungi

We have already touched on the fact that there is an eye watering number of fungi species and not all of these are mushrooms. There are toadstools, which are as well-known as mushrooms but things like yeast, truffles, mildew, and mold are also fungi. Some are harmful, others are not but they all make up this very unique branch of life.

Within these various species, there are two main types of fungi; unicellular and multicellular. In the simplest terms, a unicellular fungi is made up of a single cell that can perform all functions required to keep the organism alive. On the other hand, a multicellular fungi has several cells that perform different functions.

Moreover, the way in which these two types of fungi reproduce is different. With unicellular fungi, offspring is produced asexually, whereas multicelluar fungi can produce both sexually and asexually. The former also tends to have a shorter lifespan.

6. Fungi Are Not Actually Plants

Fungi are not plants
Fungi and animals are both heterotrophs, they take nutrition by consuming other organisms and organic matter

When we think of the world, we normally divide it into two parts; plants and animals. But what surprises a lot of people is that fungi don’t fall into either of these categories. if they did, you might think that they would be more closely related to plants, but they’re not. They actually share more traits with animals.

Unlike plants that have roots, fungi have mycelium, and while these might look the same, they function entirely differently. The mycelium grows down into the ground and secretes enzymes which then break down food sources. These food sources might include things like rotting wood, vegetables, fruits, leaf matter, rocks, and even human skin! Once the material is broken down, the fungi’s mycelium absorbs it and this nourishes the organism.

This is similar to how animals consume matter for nutrients, and any species that does this is known as a heterotroph. You and I are heterotrophs, and so are fungi; who knew we had such a close relationship with them?

There are various types of fungi, including those that can live independently as well as others that act in a similar way to a parasite. Latching onto plants or animals and benefitting from the nutrients they find here.

While it might seem a little scary that fungi can feed off animals and plants, it’s not as bad as it seems. In fact, they’re hugely beneficial as they recycle nutrients and can help with decomposition. So, if there are fungi growing in your garden, which there almost certainly will be, those dead leaves will be much more rapidly turned into soil!

7. Many Plants Couldn’t Survive Without Fungi

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about fungi is that they sometimes form a symbiotic relationship with nearby plants. This means that both species will benefit and without one another, neither could survive. In fact, it is thought that as many as 90% of all plant species have a codependency with a type of fungi known as mycorrhizae.

These fungi are found in almost every soil in the world, and they benefit plants by creating an additional root system for them. In return, the plant will produce certain nutrients that are essential to the survival of the fungi, including carbon and sugar. This relationship is so beneficial that you can even buy mycorrhizae as a garden product.

One plant that relies heavily on its relationship with mycorrhizae is the orchid. The orchid can be difficult to grow, even in the wild, but one thing that scientists have realized is that without mycorrhizae, an orchid seed won’t ever germinate. With a continuous supply of nutrients, the orchid comes to rely on the fungi for its very life!

8. Truffles Are Some of the Most Prized Food Items in the World

Black truffles
Black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) and white truffles (Tuber magnatum) are species of edible fungus that grow underground

There are several types of edible fungi, and many of these are widely available. However, there are some that are much more elusive and so come with a greater cost. The truffle is one of the most highly prized food items in the world. To find the best truffles, one would need a trained truffle sniffing dog and the best truffles are found in Europe.

That said, there can be truffles found growing in the Far East, New Zealand, and the Middle East, but those found in Europe remain the best.

In fact, they are so in demand and so luxurious that you can expect to pay a few thousand dollars just for a pound of them. And while they might not look like much, truffles have an earthy yet sweet and dark taste that one might find it hard to describe.

9. Many of Our Life-Saving Antibiotics Rely on Fungi

Penicillium fungi grown on sabouraud dextrose agar
Penicillium fungi grown on agar plates

When many people think about natural medicine, noses are often turned up, and the idea that nature could solve health problems is, for many, a myth. However, while there are some questionable remedies out there, fungi are actually one of the most reliable.

Did you know that penicillin, one of the most widely used antibiotic drugs in the world, is made from a fungi known as Penicillium rubens? While this was discovered way back in the 1920s, scientists have continued to look at the effectiveness of fungi as an antibiotic and many agree that they could be the future of medicine.

As it happens, a sample that dates back to the 1920s was recently revived in the hopes that it would destroy superbugs that were, up until this point, resistant to other drugs. Looking at the various strains within the mold and the differences between them, scientists are now working on some promising things.

10. Fungi Can Help Fight Against Environmental Damage

The earth is constantly being battered and bruised by humans, and many agree that time is running out. If we want to do our bit for the planet then it may surprise you to learn that we would need to be teaming up with fungi.

Think about the devastation caused by oil spills; this can have a drastic effect on local wildlife and plant life. Largely this is down to the oil seeping into the soil and contaminating it. While humans have tried various methods to get oil-ridden soil clean, their efforts often prove fruitless. But something as simple as fungi has been shown to effectively clean the soil, giving it a new chance to grow life. 

Plastic is one of the leading causes of environmental damage, mainly because it takes so long to break down. But what if there was an easier way? Unsurprisingly, by now, fungi can be extremely useful in breaking down plastics much more quickly.

This concept was first discovered after scientists found that a mushroom which can be secured in plastic, had actually eaten its way through the plastic until it was as good as non-existent.

A very specific type of fungi that is typically found growing in Pakistan and is known as Aspergillus tubingensis is responsible for this breakthrough. It is thought to be able to erode plastic in as little as five years. That may still sound like a long time but you consider that some plastic bottles could take in excess of four hundred years to decompose, it’s a drop in the ocean!

We all want clean water, but using fungi-based filters could be the key to incredibly pure water using a natural source. There is a compound known as chitin which, when coupled with a mycelium network, can effectively filter water, even preventing viruses and other tiny particles from getting through.

On a larger scale, scientists are looking at the possibility of using fungi to cleanse entire bodies of water without leaving the kind of damage that traditional methods do.

Finally, fungi may be imperative in the creation of biofuel, particularly that made from crop waste. What’s interesting is not only that scientists have discovered that fungi could boost the production of biofuels, but that it may even have played a part in the production of crude oil. That’s something that, up until now, has not been considered.

11. Fungi Is One of the Oldest Organisms on Earth

Fungi is one of the oldest organisms on earth
Fungi is one of the oldest living organisms on this planet and predate the dinosaurs

As we have already learned, fungi is not a plant nor an animal but an organism in its own right. But much more than this, they existed on this planet long before many other forms of life. In fact, to date, there have been all kinds of fossilized fungi discovered around the world with the oldest being estimated to be as many as one billion years old! That’s almost four times longer ago than when dinosaurs were first believed to have roamed the earth!

But it doesn’t stop there, this is just one fossil that was found. When scientists performed further research, they concluded that every type of fungi we see on earth today comes from a common ancestor that was on earth up to 1.5 billion years ago.

It’s thought that the oldest fungi can be found at the bottom of the ocean. But it wasn’t until recently that scientists realized this and began their search of the dark depths. But they’re still very much in the discovery stages, so there could be a lot more interesting information to find out!

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